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Naval

A Pacific pivot for the RCN?

Canada has recently highlighted its renewed military engagement in the Asia-Pacific. A good example is the Canadian role in the most recent Rim of the Pacific multinational exercise, which took place in the summer of 2012. There, Canada deployed a relatively sizable 1,400-strong military contingent and for the first time occupied key command positions, typically given to American officers.

One can also point to Ottawa’s decision to more regularly send officials – including Defence Minister Peter Mackay – to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security, which had hitherto lacked much of a Canadian presence, as well as the prospect of a mutual support agreement with Japan and a logistical support hub in Singapore, to complement similar arrangements elsewhere.

Importantly, these measures came closely on the heels of U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to the Pacific – a strategic “rebalance,” as it was later called, involving the expansion of the U.S. military presence in Australia and Singapore, the renewal of naval ties with key Southeast Asian nations, and a plan to achieve a 60/40 split in American naval assets between the Pacific and Atlantic by 2020.

Ottawa’s recent actions, modest as they might be, represent an implicit response to America’s own effort at rebalancing. Such measures may be sufficient if we are only witnessing a modest recalibration of American strategic policy. But Obama’s pivot could very well represent the beginnings of a more substantial adjustment in order to deal with a rising China. If so, for Ottawa to retain some influence in Washington, more may have to be done.

First, Canada could reposition the majority of its naval fleet on the West Coast in Esquimalt, as opposed to having roughly 55 percent stationed in Halifax. It might even be prudent to follow a similar distribution as the envisioned 60/40 split of the US Navy (USN). Yet, due to the domestic duties of its coastal defence vessels, an even greater number of the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) blue-water fleet will need to be stationed in the Pacific.

Second, with the major fleet-replacement program now underway, the RCN could ensure that it has the requisite capabilities to operate in the Asia-Pacific. Crucial in this regard is an at-sea replenishment capability, which is the only means for the RCN to operate and endure the long distances in this maritime theatre.

Priority should also be placed on area-air defence (AAD) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW), both of which might be necessary to operate in a high-threat environment. Even the U.S. military has raised concerns about the growing number of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles and stealthy submarines in the region, much of it owing to China’s modernizing military. It would be a mistake to assume that Canada is somehow immune to such dangers.

As such, a robust Pacific-centric RCN needs enough ships to safely station a number of them on the West Coast and a mix of offensive, defensive and replenishment capabilities to operate in the Pacific. Without the former, the RCN would only be able to deploy a token naval presence. Equally, in the absence of the latter, Canada’s navy could prove ill-suited for operations in access-constrained environments, in the Western Pacific and indeed possibly elsewhere.

Yet such capabilities will not come cheap. For example, AAD could require investments in sophisticated technologies like the U.S. Aegis combat system, now being incorporated amongst both American and allied fleets. ASW would also benefit from enabling air and undersea platforms, which opens up the contentious issue of whether replacements will be needed for the Aurora maritime aircraft and Victoria submarines. Even a robust replenishment capability is now in question, given that current plans only call for two Joint Support (actually Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment-plus) ships.

Already, there are doubts whether Canada can even fund current plans for naval recapitalization. Some suspect the RCN will simply have to settle for fewer Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships and Canadian Surface Combatants, the latter to replace its destroyer and frigate fleet. In the absence of more funding, new capabilities would only further abet this worrisome trend toward a smaller fleet – putting at risk any possibility of having more than token blue-water naval assets on both coasts.

Yet even this problem is not insurmountable. If the military’s personnel numbers were reduced, additional funds would be freed up for the capital budget. Plans to acquire the F-35 aircraft could also be rethought, or at least weighed against the RCN’s own replacement needs. Such options will prove controversial. Both the manpower-intensive Canadian Army and expeditionary-oriented Royal Canadian Air Force will likely strongly object to such an outcome.

But, in today’s constrained funding environment, it might finally be time to at least assess the costs and benefits of different types of service specialization – ideally as part of a process that explores the future direction of Canadian defence policy as a whole.

David S. McDonough is a SSHRC Honorary Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.

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